Steelers have tough decisions with free agents Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave and others

BALTIMORE -- By the time the cameras reached him inside the cramped visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium, Bud Dupree’s jersey was already off.

With free agency looming after the Pittsburgh Steelers28-10 season-ending loss to the Ravens, the linebacker might never put on another black-and-gold one again.

With 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, the outside linebacker had a breakout season, in a contract year, playing opposite of T.J. Watt. Now, the Steelers are faced with a difficult decision: apply either a franchise or transition tag, sign Dupree to a new contract, or break up the dynamic duo that made the Steelers’ defense so formidable.

“I will really, really hope that we can keep Bud,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He’s playing amazing ball, him and T.J., I mean, they’re dominant linebackers in the league. You never know how the money works. He might’ve just played himself into crazy numbers per year. He deserves it all. I hope that the Steelers can finesse it, figure it out because if we can keep those two dudes, it’ll be sick.”

Per Over The Cap, a projected franchise tag for a linebacker in 2020 is $16.2 million, while a transition tag is projected to be just north of $14 million. Because of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s backloaded contract, the Steelers don’t have much cap space next season. Roethlisberger’s contract will come with a cap hit of $33.5 million in 2020, giving the Steelers an estimated $2.4 million in effective cap space next year.

“You always want to finish what you start,” Dupree said. “That lets you know you had a good career. … But, at the end of the day, the new NFL, it’s business. Lot of stuff going on our team, got a lot of stuff that we need to fit on this team, too. ... I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the day, but I know it’s business and I know the situation that we’re in that we need to fix.”

With such little cap flexibility, the Steelers face more tough decisions than just determining Dupree’s future. Moving on from 11-year veteran offensive guard Ramon Foster before June 1 would free up $4 million in cap space, but it would cost the Steelers leadership on the offensive line and in the locker room.

The team will also have to determine the priority of re-signing versatile lineman B.J. Finney and promising defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. Other unrestricted free agents for the Steelers include former first-round pick Artie Burns, tight end Nick Vannett, defensive back Sean Davis and long-snapper Kameron Canaday.

Like Dupree, Hargrave wants to remain in Pittsburgh. But he hasn’t been told if the Steelers want him back. Hargrave, who moved into a bigger role after the season-ending injury to Stephon Tuitt, finished the year with 32 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble.

“This is what I love,” Hargrave said. “This is where my friends are. It’s all I know. I hope that we can work that out and we can make that happen.”

The reality that this could be his last game for the Steelers set in earlier this week and fully kicked in when he woke up in Baltimore on Sunday morning. Teammates came up and hugged him during the day and tried to persuade him to stay with the Steelers.

“I didn’t really think about it until basically time was running out,” he said. “And everybody coming up to me. That’s when I really just thought about it and just took it all in.”

Hargrave also acknowledged that, for him, the decision won’t just come down to the value of any contract offer.

“... It’s not just money,” he said. “It’s like a family to me. I love being here. I’m comfortable being here. But at the end of the day, it’s business.

“I just love being a part of this. I’ve been doing it for four years now, basically the same guys I came with. So of course, I just know it’s going to be a bounce-back season for us next year. Of course I want to be a part of that.”